4 Ways to Reduce Health Stigma and Why We Need To
Dealing with a health condition is difficult enough, but when the condition is stigmatized, it’s even harder.
Stigma occurs when people assume someone caused their own illness by behaving irresponsibly or immorally. But no one should be blamed for a disease they didn’t choose to have.
Which health conditions are stigmatized?
Health stigma changes over time, as cultures, opinions, politics and populations change. Still, there are some conditions — like a broken limb or the common cold — that just plain don’t have stigma attached to them.
HIV, an infection that causes AIDS if left untreated, is perhaps one of the most stigmatized conditions. When it first emerged in the U.S. in the ‘80s, people made assumptions that if someone got HIV, that meant they were using drugs, engaging in unsafe sex, or were gay, attitudes that were used to reinforce discriminatory, homophobic and transphobic stereotypes.
In the decades since, stigma around HIV has improved but not gone away. Similar stigma has impacted people affected by the recent mpox outbreak and, in general, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are stigmatized.
Others on the list include little-known or misunderstood conditions like chronic Lyme disease and chronic fatigue syndrome, mental health conditions and certain types of cancer — such as lung cancer, which people associate with smoking even though 10% to 20% of people who get it are nonsmokers.
Even things that are not conditions but are health-related — such as how much someone weighs or if someone has an abortion — have stigma attached.
Why does health stigma happen?
Health stigma is a particular type of judgment that assumes someone did something morally wrong to cause their own disease and that, therefore, they deserve it. Stigma isn’t stagnant, though; it changes over time as opinions change.
“As things become more commonplace in our society, stigma can be reduced,” says Dr. Maria Corcorran, an infectious disease specialist at UW Medicine who treats patients affected by HIV, hepatitis C and other stigmatized conditions. She works at the Madison Clinic and Liver Clinic at Harborview Medical Center and at the Aurora Clinic, which serves people living homeless, including people who engage in sex work and are experiencing substance use disorders.
Change doesn’t mean stigma goes away entirely, however. While HIV isn’t stigmatized as much as it used to be, it still isn’t something people discuss openly, even though there are treatments that make spreading the infection to others nearly impossible.
Politics, actions taken by law enforcement, health policies, social norms, news media and existing discrimination such as racism and homophobia can all contribute to how stigma changes (or doesn’t) over time.
Regardless of whether someone experiences stigma directly or is aware of its existence, it can impact how — or whether — they receive care.
Take hepatitis C, an infection that causes liver inflammation and damage. It is commonly acquired through drug use but can be cured in most people.
“Having a condition that is so attached to injection drug use in our collective conscience can be incredibly stigmatizing. Being able to cure those folks is so powerful,” Corcorran says.
She says some of her patients are ashamed of having the infection because of the stigma around drug use and how that may not align with their current reality: maybe they only experimented with drugs a few times or have worked hard to get sober.
Some people may not get the care they need, the care that could cure them, because of this stigma.
“Maybe they don’t want to be seen going to a specific location or picking up medications from a pharmacy that are linked to a specific diagnosis. The medicines we use for HIV and hepatitis C are pretty specific, so having to pick that up in your community can be stigmatizing,” she explains.
And for people who do still use, stigma doesn’t help them stop — it only contributes to feelings of guilt or inadequacy.
Which can we do to reduce health stigma?
Corcorran has worked with many patients who experience stigma and has witnessed firsthand the harms it causes — as well as the opportunities for healing that happen when stigma is reduced.
Support game-changing medical research
Most of us can’t conduct or majorly fund medical research, but there’s no doubt it can shift the dynamic around stigmatized conditions by discovering effective treatments and cures.
Medical research is what created the medications that can cure most people of hepatitis C and prevent HIV infection or prevent HIV from turning into AIDS.
“With medication, people with HIV have virus counts so low that it’s undetectable in a lab, which means they can’t transmit the virus to a partner. When that messaging first came out, it was empowering. It was one of the better messages we’ve had in a long time to reduce stigma,” Corcorran says.
Talk about it
“People don’t talk about these conditions as much because of the stigma, but that only helps to perpetuate stigma,” Corcorran says. “We see this with a lot of different things — even things like miscarriages and abortions — that really don’t get talked about even among friends because of stigma.”
That doesn’t mean sharing your entire medical history — it’s understandable to want some privacy around your medical experiences. But whether you’ve had or have a stigmatized condition or simply want to support those who do, talking about them in a general way is a good thing.
Nowadays, celebrities and public figures discussing diagnoses online — as well as regular people doing the same thing — can help others with the same condition feel less stigmatized. This has been especially true with mental health conditions.
Be understanding and supportive
That said, it’s important for everyone — regardless of what diagnoses they do or don’t have — to help reduce health stigma.
“It’s not fair that people who are suffering from a stigmatized condition are then tasked with eliminating that stigma. That’s where we need community advocacy, provider advocacy and people who are allies,” Corcorran says.
If someone confides in you about a condition they have, listen and show support, personally and publicly. Volunteer at or donate to a local advocacy group if you can.
Educate yourself and others
Lack of knowledge contributes to stigma, so learning more about stigmatized conditions and helping stop misinformation makes a difference.
“For example, a lot of people don’t understand that HIV is a very treatable condition that’s treated like a chronic illness like hypertension or diabetes: You take one pill a day. It’s the same for hepatitis C. If you polled people in our community, a good proportion of them probably wouldn’t know that hepatitis C is curable with two to three months of medications,” Corcorran says.
Part of her job as a doctor is providing people with this kind of education, she adds. But you don’t have to be a medical professional to learn how to accurately talk about a condition.
Educating others and yourself also means adapting to how language around stigmatized conditions changes. What you say now may not be the best thing to say a few years from now. For example, “handicapped” used to be an acceptable term but is now outdated in preference of “disabled.”
“This happens to me, too, as a doctor. You won’t get it right all the time, but be willing to learn and grow, take advice and feedback, and give it in a way that doesn’t make people feel crummy,” Corcorran says.